Turning Students into Entrepreneurs

Fabrication Lab and Startup Program Open New Worlds at The Gregory School

By Valerie Vinyard

The Gregory School has a place where students explore the “why” instead of just learning the “how” of being an entrepreneur.

The concept started in the Fab Lab, short for fabrication laboratory, at The Gregory School, which occupies a space in the science building where students are inspired to imagine, conceptualize, design and build, and where tinkering, experimenting and failing are encouraged and celebrated.

The school is uniquely the first and only school-based member of the MIT Fab Lab Network in Arizona.

On a recent school day, a handful of students were spread throughout the lab, talking with instructors or using the state-of-the-art equipment available to them.

According to the school’s website, the lab is not simply a facility for prototyping and 3D printing; it is a forum for students. It is part of a much larger community that collaborates beyond international borders, sharing knowledge, designs and experiences.

Out of the concept of the Fab Lab came the idea for an Entrepreneurial Institute. Dan Young, a social sciences teacher at the school, said the entrepreneurial program started taking shape in November 2020.

The Institute is described as an educational center for entrepreneurial MBA-level theory, application, funding and creation. It adds mentorship of alumni and community entrepreneurs to the MIT Network Fab Lab’s emphasis on imagining and conceptualizing and its resources for designing and building. 

Young worked with Yee Su, an entrepreneurial mentor and 2012 TGS graduate, and TGS science teacher Dennis Conner to develop the program. 

“We wanted to create a program that offered the startup experience students typically experience in a collegiate program while utilizing the design and prototyping opportunities available through our own fabrication resources,” Young said. “They get a chance to learn how to start a business.”. 

It’s not unlike the Maguire New Venture Development program at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

The program includes inviting leading entrepreneurs who regularly speak to classes. 

A program of this magnitude requires special funding. That’s when alumni parents Gurpreet and Reema Jaggi stepped in with a generous gift, seeding the program for the first two years.

The Entrepreneurial Institute is integrated into the school community and interacts with students and faculty, as well as family members. Juniors and seniors can apply to the institute in spring for the following academic year. The class meets three times per week.

Young said that students spend the first semester of the program learning the fundamentals of a “lean” startup, which includes customer discovery, the design-thinking process and the production facilities available in the school’s Fab Lab. 

At the end of October, the students get to put their skills to use in the “Toy Challenge.” They work in groups, to imagine, design, manufacture and market a new toy. They get some help and advice from Autumn Ruhe (Class of 2001), who owns Tucson toy store Mildred & Dildred.

“This project gives them a chance to practice all the skills in a small-scale project before the second semester,” said Young, who also teaches economics at the school. “The teams are actually making and building their own thing. To my knowledge, there’s not another school in Tucson that does this.”

During the second semester, Young said, the students take the skills they’ve learned and build their own startup. 

“We give them a great deal of latitude in deciding what they’re going to launch, but we do require they have some physical product as part of their new venture,” he said. “While they do a great deal of the work independently, there are weekly check-ins to make sure they’re progressing and hitting their deadlines.”  

Young said that the second semester culminates with a TechCrunch-style pitch competition in May. Each group is given 10 minutes to make their funding pitch and then respond to the judges’ questions. Last year’s judges were Mat Friedman (Class of 2011), a senior operations analyst at FullStory, Maggie Zheng, chief of staff at Doorvest, and Ron Stauffer, founder and chief marketer at Lieder Digital.

“Throughout the year, our students get to hear from individuals involved in all facets of entrepreneurship,” Young said. “We are lucky to have alumni and TGS community members willing to come and talk about their own experiences, lessons learned and recommendations. Meanwhile, our students get to hear that entrepreneurship isn’t just one thing.”  

Young said that speakers have included artists, performers, cookie bakers, attorneys and venture capitalists, as well as experts in global branding. He also noted that Startup Tucson has been deeply supportive of the program. The entrepreneur organization helped coordinate additional guest speakers.

“We want our students to know that there are so many ways they can be involved in shaping their own path,” he said.  


Pictured above from left – Dennis Conner, Sciences Faculty Member, The Gregory School; Dan Young, Social Sciences Faculty Member, The Gregory School. Photo by Brent G. Mathis
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